For the last five years, the driver’s seat for the partnership of the top racing series in NASCAR has been occupied by Kimberly Meesters, the General Manager of the NASCAR Sprint Cup sponsorship. A motorsports veteran, Kimberly was tasked with presenting the Sprint brand in an authentic way to a fan base frequently called the most engaged in sports. She was innovative in her approach to ensure that Sprint had a natural integration into the NASCAR family. As technology advanced, so did Sprint’s activations to enhance the fan experience at both the race and at home. Beginning with Nextel launching the revolutionary FanView scanner device, followed by the development of the smartphone app, and the introduction of social-media- era ambassador program, Miss Sprint Cup, Kimberly and her team brought new, fresh content to millions of fans. Sprint and NASCAR set a new precedent for sport sponsorships as they evolved their relationship to achieve exceptional growth for both brands. The 13-year relationship has now come to a close as Monster Energy takes the wheel as the new entitlement sponsor, surely in hopes of cultivating the same bond Sprint achieved with NASCAR fans.
How, and when, did you decide to pursue a career in motorsports? My parents were small business owners actively involved in the grassroots level of motorsports. So I was exposed to the business of auto racing from a young age. My time at Texas A&M University coincided with the start of NASCAR’s rapid growth. Texas Motor Speedway was under construction, and I landed an internship for its opening season. From there, it just made sense to stay in the sport and grow with it. Timing is everything. If Texas Motor Speedway had not been built in 1997 my career may have taken an entirely different path. NASCAR is a sport where the fans are highly engaged in the sponsorships of their favorite drivers, teams, and events - how did you ensure that Sprint would be received favorably by the fans? We recognized the importance of being a fan first and advertiser second. The strategy was pretty straightforward: Begin by focusing solely on the sport and gaining fan acceptance; [then] start to introduce the product but only in the context of how it can help the fan get closer to the sport; once the brand is truly considered part of the motorsports family then ask for their business. Even then, fans still expect your activation, advertising, PR, digital, etc… to be in the context of their favorite sport. Providing unique experiences was a key to many of our successes, which is not surprising given the growth of this trend in sports marketing and the culture of this younger generation. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the average age of a NASCAR fan is 48, how did age of the consumer play into how you marketed and activated the sponsorship? What are some tactics you employed to try to expand the age demographic? We didn’t purposefully set out to expand the age demographic. Nextel signed a 10-year deal in 2004 because there were millions of current fans that were prime targets for Nextel’s product. Nextel had a significant opportunity to increase its market share among this group. It worked very well for Nextel. Sprint inherited the sponsorship when it bought Nextel and then Sprint renewed for 3 additional years because Sprint still had room to increase its market share among NASCAR fans. So age was not a huge factor at those moments. As a technology company, Sprint likely contributed to changes in the fan base but the focus was on winning the business of the current fan. The aging demographic is a concern for the future of the sport, but it is incumbent on the league to address the issue more than the sponsors. NASCAR is in a tough spot. They recognize the aging fan base and are aggressively trying to attract the younger audiences. They have to do this without alienating their core fan. It is a tough balance to find. There isn’t a perfect solution, but they are working hard to solve for it.
The Sprint NASCAR partnership was a 13-year relationship - how did you keep consumers engaged and make the most of each year? Measurement! We had brand metrics to guide the long term/big picture, but our operational metrics helped us optimize season-to- season activation. Along with our agency, Octagon, we took a look at a variety of KPIs every week of the season and then a deep dive at the mid-point and end of year. Those data points provided the foundation for any adjustments that were made. We used to joke that we found the end of Excel because of all the information we tracked. We tried to keep the activation fresh and culturally relevant. The ambassador program started as a way to connect with fans at race events but later evolved into a multi-faceted social media program with 1.5M followers. Nextel launched a handheld FanView unit, which helped bring fans in the stands a high-tech experience. Then smartphones became all the rage so focus shifted to developing the first NASCAR mobile app. Those technologies have been expanded on by the league, the tracks and the TV partners. To your earlier question about age, these are some examples where Sprint’s programs likely contributed to a more inviting atmosphere for younger, tech-savvy fans. As Sprint has now turned over the reins to Monster Energy as the next sponsor of NASCAR's top division, what advice would you give their head of sponsorship, or anyone in a similar position? Leave room in your contracts for flexibility. This goes for contracts with venues, leagues, athletes, vendors, etc… The world is changing so rapidly that you need to be able to make adjustments to sponsorship programs in real time. It is much easier to do that if you have upfront buy in that amendments are acceptable. If you are investing in a property at the entitlement level then make it part of your corporate DNA. Monster Energy embraces this concept already. Be an authentic fan of the program you sponsor. Fans will reward you for it. Make it a valuable tool for all business units not just sales and marketing. Get buy in from all employees. Nextel did this extremely well and Sprint did too until recent years when the company, understandably, had to focus solely on transformation efforts. You were recognized as a female leader by Sports Business Journal in the 2014 Class of Game Changers: Women in Sports Business, Congratulations! For other women looking to earn and hold leadership positions, what do you think are the most significant barriers to female leadership and what are some ways you’ve overcome them? I won’t even try to offer my opinion on the work/life barriers that women face. That requires a whole book! For 20 years I have worked in a male-dominated industry. Until I am asked a question like this, I never even think about the issue. I just focus on doing my job, contributing to the bottom line, and learning from those above and below me. I think it is important to have self-confidence and be assertive, but it is also OK to show that inherent softer side. Sometimes empathy can get you a long way in a tough negotiation. What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess? Candor. That one word pretty much encompasses a variety of thoughts including: honesty, openness, bluntness (is that a word?), sincerity etc… Communication is everything. Don’t hold in your thoughts. Be polite and considerate in your tone but always be open and honest.
What other goals or aspirations do you have for your career?
So far my career has exceeded all of my expectations. Hard work has paid off. I feel blessed to enjoy my profession so much that it doesn’t feel like work. Moving forward I’m interested in exploring my entrepreneurial side through consulting or contract work. This “gig economy” is intriguing. I’m not opposed to working directly for one company, but I like the idea of sharing my experience with multiple brands to help them maximize their sponsorship investments. I am also a lifelong learner who enjoys academic environments, so I can see teaching at the college level. No matter where my career leads, I always want to keep some time open to mentor young professionals. I’ve learned so much from so many veterans of this business that it only seems right to pay it forward whenever possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - SARA MCMALL
A proud University of Michigan alum, Sara began her career in the consumer packaged goods industry with PepsiCo in Detroit, Michigan. Over her three years, she held leadership positions in sales and marketing where she built relationships both internally as well as with PepsiCo’s key retail and food service partners to compete in the aggressive beverage industry. Now living in Chicago, Sara is a Manager of Corporate Partnerships for Premier Partnerships, a sports and entertainment property sponsorship sales and consulting firm. In this role, she identifies brands whose corporate strategies and objectives align with the portfolio of properties that Premier represents across the nation. From sports stadiums to racing teams, airports to world-renowned attractions, Premier has a robust portfolio that allows her to creatively present opportunities to leading brands across all industries. Sara has a passion for the empowerment of women in business, particularly sport business, and works to encourage those who have ambition to grow and succeed.